Emotions at Play

Andy Wade

I was angry. It seemed to be happening a lot lately. And I wasn’t just angry for a few minutes, I seemed to stew all day long. That’s when I began to realize something was wrong inside me, and it needed to change.

Our emotions and attitudes are often indicators of a need to stop, pay attention, and spend time listening to God about the deeper things going on in our lives. While most of our creative prayer practices this month have been fun, this one’s a bit more of a challenge. Spend some time reflecting on your attitudes this past week. Now ask yourself:

  • gum-on-shoeAre there areas in my life that seem to stir me up and stick with me like old gum on the bottom of my shoe?
  • Are there situations that so get under my skin that they infect my attitude and tarnish the way I relate to others throughout the day?
  • Is there, say, a social media platform that, when I go on it I find myself getting angry and lashing out with words I’d not normally use, or sharing memes I know are hurtful or demeaning to others who don’t share my perspective?

I’m getting better, but every once-in-a-while I cross the line on Facebook. A few years ago I posted a cynical comment on Facebook regarding an event in the news, expressing some frustration. In response, a friend asked this question, “How do we effect change among (others)? Heck, how do I effect MORE change in myself?” Those questions stirred within me as I wrote a more cool-headed, thoughtful reply. Three years later those same questions continue to stir in me, precisely because they are essential questions for those of us who follow Christ and take his call to discipleship seriously.

Here’s how I responded:

I think you touch on two very important aspects of change: education and attitude. I’m in a love-hate relationship with Facebook; it’s great for getting in touch, and staying in touch, with friends, new and old, but it also is filled with bumper sticker-type proclamations that tend to feed extreme views and fuel anger, cynicism, and division. I admit, I’m part of the problem and have quit reading many of the inflammatory articles and memes that appear in my timeline.

I’m attempting this change in myself: If a post gets me angry, I’m trying to force myself to peer underneath my emotions and ask, “Why?” Am I falling into an intentional trap laid out to tick me off? Or is this a legitimate issue to be upset about? If it’s legit, how can I better respond in a way that moves toward understanding rather than alienates?

My role, as a follower of Jesus, is to be an “ambassador of reconciliation”. Too often I’m an ambassador of discord as I allow myself to be manipulated by media, provocation, and my own unexamined attitudes and emotions.

In other words, to effect change in others requires change first in me. I’m convinced this is the beginning step in personal, spiritual, and social change – and it’s not a one-off event, but an ongoing awareness of my internal attitudes, emotions, motivations, and underlying assumptions.

Once I acknowledge this and begin to put it into practice, I’m (more) ready to begin engaging in healthy spiritual practices which can further shape my inner character. [One might argue that our first spiritual practice should be to come before God with this kind of open, confessional-repentant attitude.]

I’ve come to realize how various spiritual practices can easily become just an extension of our broken and often cynical nature if we do not begin with the foundational (and ongoing) process of personal examination. Without this ongoing examination, I put up roadblocks to the work of the Spirit in my life and cripple not only my own spiritual growth but also my ability to walk effectively alongside others.

With the right attitude engaged, I can look again at how best to be an agent of change in a way that does not also intentionally or unintentionally alienate many of the people I’m trying to communicate with. It now becomes more possible for me to be an agent of education and change because I’m allowing God to shape my heart and mind around God’s purposes and God’s methods of healing and reconciliation in the world.

Well, these are nice words and thoughts… Now to live into them! This is my personal challenge as I journey forward. Believe it or not, I have been trying to change, but the combination of passion about various extremely important issues and the accessibility (especially through Facebook) of radicalized “news” articles and memes make it a real challenge to maintain a clear and open attitude. Enter community – good and trustworthy friends who can help hold me (us) accountable to our deeper calling.

© Kiosea39 | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-angry-furious-businesswoman-working-computer-screaming-alphabet-letter-coming-out-open-mouth-negative-human-emotions-image60903320#res6340236">Angry furious businesswoman working on computer, screaming</a>As I now read back over these words, I’m stunned by both the simplicity and the complexity of my undertaking. The actions themselves are quite simple; the complexity is where emotions and habit enter in. To move forward I must be intentional about all my interactions, especially those that take place online.

Why “especially online”? A few years ago, while talking with a friend, I made the analogy of Facebook posts being like driving on the freeway. Because of the imagined anonymity or distance, people become more aggressive, acting in ways they never would in a face-to-face encounter. What I failed to realize at the time was how much I was also referring to my own online presence!

It Begins at Home

Jesus offers us a very simple, yet complex, invitation: “Come, follow me.” This is an invitation to discipleship, to spiritual formation. This is all about transformation, and that requires a desire to change. My friend’s question, “How do we effect change in [others]?” cannot really be answered until we honestly begin to answer his second question, “How do I effect change in myself?” It begins at home, in our hearts and minds, as we truly open our lives – our motivations, assumptions, pre-conceived notions, prejudices, and attitudes – to God and to a small community of followers.

Or as Jesus once put it:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your neighbor’s eye.” (Mt. 7:3-5)

Sure, Jesus is talking about passing judgment here, but isn’t that precisely where our attitudes often go astray? What, after all, causes me to respond to those I might disagree with by posting a meme that belittles their view or a snarky comment that’s demeaning and hurtful? If I am truly an “ambassador of reconciliation”, if my motivation is to love God with all I am and to love my neighbor as myself, how can I even begin to justify many of my actions and reactions on social media?

So here is my final creative prayer practice challenge for the month: spend time on your favorite social media platform. Look back through your posts, reposted memes, and comments. Sit with them. Bring them before God.

  • How do they fit with who you are in Christ?
  • How do they align with your call to be an ambassador of reconciliation?
  • What attitudes were evoked inside you when you posted?
  • Can you identify your motivation for posting as you did?
  • Can you identify some of your own underlying assumptions that may have added to conflict or division?
  • How might you respond differently, not to avoid disagreement or dealing with important issues, but to work honestly at building understanding and dialogue?

This is difficult work. I’ve gotten so much better at responding the past couple of years. But truth be told, I still fail. I fail more often than I care to admit. But when I do fail – and realize I’ve failed – I also try to go back and admit where I messed up and apologize.

Am I the only one wrestling with this? Judging by the posts I’ve seen the past couple of days my guess is, no. What are your thoughts?